Thursday, August 21, 2014

Comics Reviews (August 21st, 2014)

Let's try something different this week - instead of grades, a somewhat more idiosyncratic countdown from my least favorite thing I picked up this week to my pick of the week.

The Unwritten Apocalypse #8

Long a book I've meant to sit down with when it's all done, that being the way in which Carey's previous Lucifer worked best. It got some new momentum when it reset to #1 and added "Apocalypse" to its name, but at this point that momentum has fizzled, and I find myself wishing the book would get to its final arc, as it feels ready for it. Not unpleasant, but not entirely compelling either.

Fables #143

Well, at least the sense of an ending and of some scale is creeping back into the book, such that I'm prepared to believe that they'll stick the landing. But I think it's pretty clear this series is going to have ended up running some seventy-five issues longer than it should. It's gotten to an annoying state of being too big to sell well in trade, and too many arcs were mediocrities. Buying out of a glorious sunk cost fallacy, basically, but it could yet work out.

Mighty Avengers #13

I scolded someone the other day for declaring that people oughtn't refer to this book as the Black Avengers, and this issue largely proves my point, with a story that's very much about race and American history. Which is not entirely what anyone would, on the surface, expect from a white British writer, but that is much of this book's charm. And it has the single best last word of any book this week.

The Fade Out #1

Brubaker is always an odd one for me - he's undeniably good, but his propensity for doing straight up, traditional genre pieces tends to leave me a bit cold. I still will buy any #1 with his name on it. Not sure I'll go for #2 here, as this seems like a straight up noir book without much in the way of new ideas, but it's very well executed, and if you have any love of noir (I can take it or leave it), this is probably your pick of the week.

Trees #4

This is increasingly just feeling like Ellis is trolling the readership. He's said it might only go for one arc, but it's unfathomable that this is actually a single arc story - it's clearly structured as an ongoing. Ellis is, of course, more than capable of pulling off a surprise and making this work, and I'm certainly not criticizing it, but I am wary of it. Within this specific issue, meanwhile, are at least two great scenes. Interesting, and if you can go at it with a "journey is more important than the destination" attitude, it surely won't disappoint, but I'm still wary.

New Avengers #23

Hickman plays to his strengths with a bunch of lovely character beats, followed by a twist that's been a long time coming and that really, properly spices this book up a bit. For all my occasional frustrations with Hickman, I am interested in how he's going to land this, and New Avengers has fairly consistently been good. So yes - this one properly excited me.

Multiversity #1

The statistical average of a Grant Morrison comic, which is in no way an unpleasant thing. I have some ethical concerns about the "haunted comic book" idea, especially given the particulars of the magical system in which Morrison works, but I'll withhold judgment until I see where he's going with it all. What jumps out at me here is that for all the ways in which Morrison is reveling in conceptual excess (""it's rotating through the fifth dimension around a fixed point in the structure of the multiversal orrery of worlds!"), this is remarkably clear and sensible. Fun book, if you like Morrison's superhero work.

Daredevil #7

Quite a surprise to me, this was a remarkably good issue. Waid can frustrate me a bit, but he's inventive and good at drawing from various elements. In this case, he mixes a solid if slightly didactic discussion of postpartum depression with leftist protest nuns, and gives Daredevil a very solid opportunity to be clever and find a solution other heroes wouldn't. I accused Waid of being past his best ideas for the character a few issues ago. I am hereby proven wrong.

Ms. Marvel #7

This comic is consistently a delight, and I praise it unreservedly. The last panel twist is genius, and I love Wilson's use of Wolverine, and the idea that Wolverine gets Kamala in a really fundamental level. There are a lot of heroes Wilson could have used for this plot point, many of them more intuitive for this book than Wolverine. Instead Wilson went for a gratuitously over-exposed character who didn't self-evidently appear to be the right tone for this book, and hit it out of the park. Word is that the digital sales on this are through the roof, such that it's actually outselling every X-Men and Avengers book Marvel is publishing. As well it should - this is a masterpiece.

The Wicked + The Divine #3

Brilliant, of course. A comic long on ideas, but unlike, say, Grant Morrison, interested in avoiding being too flashy about how many clever things it can do, instead giving the ideas plenty of room to breathe, while still only spending a little time with each of them. Laura gets her first proper moment of awesome, and some great characterization (the scene with her family is so much brilliant and ouch). Thank God this book has 40-60 issues with which to explore everything. Also, two great double page spreads of the sort Gillen and McKelvie are supposedly not doing in this book. Magnificent.

Supreme Blue Rose #2

I have no idea what this book is. Two issues in, Ellis is so long on ideas that I honestly can't tell where he's going. It's clearly in a tradition explored by Moore and Morrison, and its status as a response book to Moore, but two issues in Ellis is still mapping out the broad territory. Despite this, it's fascinating and readable and excites me in a real and fundamental way. This is the book where I most want all the remaining issues to come out so I can read them all, so pick of the week it is.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You Were Expecting Someone Else 31 (The Eternity Clock)

Frezno has done such a nice job continuing The Nintendo Project that I felt like I should let him play on this blog too.

1985 was a very eventful year, when one looks back on it from a broad perspective. Swap out your wide-angle lens and zero in towards two of the important moments of that year, for our purposes. In England, Doctor Who was supposedly struggling to entertain the masses. The Doctor, he of bright coat and bravado, faced off against deadly foes like the Bandrils and the tree mines. The final straw came just as Peri Brown was running away from a cannibal with bushy eyebrows. The program failed to get a passing Grade and was put on hiatus. As has been noted, this was the first major blow to Doctor Who in the 1980's. One could argue it was the blow that eventually killed it. It got better, though.

You know what else got better? Video games. 1983 saw video games in North America face their own Ragnarok at the hands of over-indulgent capitalists. Howard Scott Warshaw, unfairly maligned man that he is, did what he could. The world ended. It was up to a red and white box from a land that did not exist now. It transcended the sea between worlds and became corporeal, becoming a magical grey box that was bigger on the inside. The Nintendo Entertainment System was born. Video games existed again. Put the wide-angle lens back on, and zoom out to track the course of history that stems from this grey box's success. The NES gives way to the Super NES. Plans are made to give the Super NES an upgrade, a CD expansion. Nintendo works in tandem with Sony on this, but creative differences cause it to never happen, relegated to a different universe where we all have pods in our ears. Sony, to its credit, uses this knowledge to create the Playstation. Its success gives way to Playstation 2, and then to Playstation 3... and that leads us back to a world where the anoraks have taken over the asylum since the novel days, and Doctor Who is The Biggest Thing On Television. Naturally, licenses are made and agreed upon, the ever-present billowing dress of Lady Capitalism securing the creation of something that will make plenty of money. This, friends, is Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock.

It would probably help, then, to define what The Eternity Clock is. Aside from being a mystical video game Macguffin to be collected. Doctor Who dabbled in video games before. None of them really turned out to be all that good. This isn't even the first Doctor Who video game since it came back; there were a handful of adventure games with the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond running around solving puzzles. The Eternity Clock goes in a different direction, and turns the Doctor Who video game into a cinematic platformer, not unlike Prince of Persia or Another World. Really, it's the best direction one could have gone with when considering a Doctor Who video game. Adventure games are a fine idea, but running around and jumping across gaps is the sort of thing that saved video games in the first place. It adds a dash of excitement to the whole thing. Pity, then, that it isn't as good as Prince of Persia or Another World... but then again, what is? Those are some of the finest computer games ever made. The Eternity Clock is not nearly as fine, but we won't hold that against it. It draws its power from the brand. Names have power, as the bloggers with their alchemy kits will tell you... and the power of Doctor Who's name is what's brought us all here in the first place. So. The Eternity Clock. What does it have going for it?

Matt Smith and Alex Kingston, for one! Mr. Bowtie and Miss Hello Sweetie, virtual avatars flirting in high-definition compressed MP3 probably Redbook Audio for all the kids to hear! Crisp polygons and 3D rendered graphics! Daleks! Cybermen! Silurians! The Silence! Time corridors, vortex manipulators, sonic screwdrivers and hallucinogenic lipstick... and we haven't even gotten into the kisses to the past. Have you ever wanted to hear a voice clip of Matt Smith referencing UNIT dating? Here you go! Let's sneak a peek at River's diary and read about how she snooped around 76 Totter's Lane! Wow! These are the things that resonate strongest about The Eternity Clock, because they are the reason it exists. This game uses the mercurial ever-shifting power of Doctor Who to turn an otherwise unremarkable adventure platformer into something that a fan will gain extra enjoyment from. Certainly, I can admit to sort of falling into this trap. I mean, it was the reason I was playing this Doctor Who game. The same reason why we read the novels or pop Big Finish stuff onto our music players. We want more adventures with madmen and their magical boxes. This particular adventure is not a classic, but only a few things are. We can file it along with the many other pieces of Doctor Who that are merely okay.

Where does The Eternity Clock fall flat? For one, I have no real idea how any of the things in the game happened. We begin as many a new series episode will begin; explosions and alarms within the TARDIS as Murray Gold swells into our ears and Matt Smith flutters about like a Time Lord hummingbird. He steps out of the TARDIS and finds himself in the vault of the Bank of England as the blue box vanishes. After some basic tutorial jumping and climbing and pushing things on to other things, we cut to Stormcage and play as River Song as she breaks out to go help the Doctor. This segment is a lot of fun for a bit of forced stealth nonsense aping off of Metal Gear Solid. We've never actually really seen River bust out of Stormcage. It's not required to show on television in favor of moving the plot along, but it's a cute addition here. Once River retrieves her vortex manipulator, we get co-operative puzzles! You can get a friend to help or let the AI control River as she helps the Doctor climb ledges and operate dual-control switches and stuff like that. We'll get to how effective the machine is at playing sassy archaeologist in a bit. After that, all hell breaks loose.

There are Cybermen below London, and they sound nothing like Nicholas Briggs because he and his distinctive vocal talents are replaced by Sir Not Appearing In This Electronic Video Game. Hell, they don't even act much like Cybermen. Here we see the Final Upgrade, a process finally complete after 44 years. The Cybermen began as the shadow of us, the true microchip self. They killed Doctor Who, and it turned out that they also died with him. Replacing them were monstrous men in silver suits who buzzed that we BELONG TO UZZZZZ. Replacing those were different men in silver suits who liked to say EXCELLENT. More and more of humanity's shadow was lost, and now we have the final result; a video game monster. These aren't living things any more. They have no presence. They stamp forward and yell DELETE. The only reason they are called "Cybermen" is because names have power, and the recognizability is the heart of the clock. It could be anything. It could be a swarm of KL-2s. It could be Sandminder robots. Whatever these... things are, they are coming and it is the player's job to outwit their evil plot.

London has been invaded by a whole fleet of these things, and... look, this is about where it all goes off the rails. This isn't the London of the new series. This is an abandoned London with a gigantic Cyber warship smack dab in the middle of it. They hold a piece of the mystical and magical Eternity Clock, and it's the Doctor's job to Get It All Back. After all, Doctor who did invent the "collect them all" concept back in 1964. There aren't any stakes, though! Iconic bad aliens from the show we love are doing bad things with time and they each have a piece of this powerful thingy. The Doctor says "River we have to get the thingy back" and then the player goes and does that. Hell, you don't even leave the planet Earth! You jump back and forth in time to solve different problems in the London of the past, like a rogue Silurian who wants to pump deadly gas up to kill all the people. It is Doctor Who as video game in its most basic form, and in the process it debases the popular creatures from the show into video game enemies, turning the broad ideas that came from 46 years of time and space into Pokemon. The Cybermen yell DELETE! The Silurians yell about APES! The Daleks yell about EXTERMINATION! The secret of alchemy is not here. The only thing that makes it out of here with some character and innovation are the Silence, in a reverse stealth segment where River needs to sneak around them. If you fail to keep at least one on the same "screen" as you, River promptly forgets what she was up to and you are sent back. It's clever, but not enough to salvage the game. There are too many issues.

Not to mention the bugs. See, the AI in this game is less than stellar. I can cast my mind back to a certain section in Elizabethan London, where the Doctor and River must work together to ascend a tower of some sort. Thing is, if you let River follow you to a certain section before you climb up, she gets stuck in an endless loop. Leaping for a platform, failing to grab it, climbing up again and again. Now, either someone really really liked the chronic hysteris from Meglos, or something's gone terribly wrong with the AI script for Dr. Song. This is the most gamebreaking example, but little moments of her running around aimlessly crop up here and there... and this was the Steam version I was playing! This is the definitive version; it's hard to imagine that the original PS3 release was worse, but that appears to be the case! Not that there will be much improvement, either; the developers of this fine computer game closed shop not too long ago. Troubling, since The Eternity Clock just sort of ends. You stop the Silurians, you conquer the Cybermen, and even deal with the Daleks during their invasion of Earth to get all four pieces of the Clock back... and then the game stops, all but throwing a To Be Continued at your face. It ends just as abruptly as it began, and sequels were planned. An assumption of success; it's Doctor Who, it has to make loads of money! Maybe it did and maybe it didn't, but the simple fact remains that all of this is yet another dead end for Doctor Who. Perhaps, in that distant universe where the roses sing, we got sequels. Perhaps they were blockbuster hits. We'll never know.

That's The Eternity Clock. It's the best intersection Doctor Who and video games have shared, even if it isn't a standout. It occupied my time for 7 hours or so; fairly brief by video game standards, but fine by me. The thing was a gift, anyway, so I personally had fun with it. Nevertheless, it failed. That's okay. We still have the show, and that's still fantastic. Doctor Who doesn't need video games to thrive. It's doing that just fine. The money from the video games might help it a little, but that's Lady Capitalism's kiss for you. We'll always have our dreams of what could have been, with the Clock fueling interactive adventures through time and space. Ah well. At least scanning things with the sonic screwdriver was a lot of fun.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Angels Have the Phonebox (The Angels Take Manhattan)

In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as a frankly alarming
It’s September 29th, 2012. Script are at number one with “Hall of Fame,” with Psy, Pink, Ne-Yo, and, with an impressive seven letters, Example also charting. In news, resolution is reached regarding the lockout of NFL referees, and, the day after this story airs, the Jimmy Saville story starts to break as it comes out that ITV is planning on airing a documentary accusing him of being a pedophile. 

On television today, however, the last of five episodes in Doctor Who’s 2012 mini-season. The decision to frame the first portion of Season Seven with two returning monsters is interesting. Asylum of the Daleks served as Moffat’s most aggressive feint, at least in terms of the audience, with everything it was sold as disappearing in a haze of Jenna Louise Coleman. But if that story was aggressively forward-looking, here we get the flip side: a story that cannot possibly look forward. All of this is ultimately framed by the paratext: by the fact that even before Asylum of the Daleks aired, Coleman had been announced as the next companion and the departure of the Ponds had been set for this story. To some extent this has been the major problem with this entire run of episodes: it’s clearly just 2012’s filler before we get to 2013, where the main event is, both because of the fundamentally forward-looking nature of the hype machine that fuels Doctor Who and because 2013 - 50 = 1963. But as with Asylum of the Daleks, this paratext is fundamental to understanding the structure of The Angels Take Manhattan, an episode that from the first frame only makes sense if the audience goes in knowing that it’s Amy Pond’s departure story. 

Equally important, however, are the Weeping Angels. “I know how they work,” River says at one point, in a line that is more revealing than it initially appears. The Angels have always been defined, after all, as a game. The heart of their success is that they recognize that the true form of a Doctor Who monster is simply as a set of rules, and that the art comes in telling a story where those rules pay off. The Angels work according to a very simple rule, and, more importantly, one that fundamentally serves as a metaphor for the medium in which they are ensconced. They are, in every sense, governed by the act of looking. Combine with a solid visual design and you have a hit.

But the story draws equally heavily from Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, which quietly reworked large swaths of the Angels’ conception, expanding on the fundamental link between the Angels and televisual storytelling with its chilling injunction that the image of an Angel becomes an Angel. This tied the Angels inexorably into Doctor Who’s qlippothic tradition, which is to say, they represent the border of narrative possibility: an already collapsed and decayed story that is at once called into existence and fundamentally unspeakable within the confines of the existing narrative.

Within the context of The Angels Take Manhattan, however, this is linked cleverly to another literary tradition, namely that of weird fiction, a genre that has always been defined by the qlippothic, albeit usually under a different name. It’s telling that the story is set the year after H.P. Lovecraft’s death, as the entire opening sequence is essentially Doctor Who doing Lovecraft, finally paying off one of the great unrealized promises of the 1990s. The Angels are simply a lurking and pre-existing horror. Depending on your perspective, they either lack an origin entirely, serving as a sort of predator that extends from the concept of the universe itself, or their origin sits squarely in that weird intersection of Borges and Lovecraft. Either way, they function perfectly well as a cosmic horror kick, and Moffat and Hurran conspire to craft a quick and efficient bit of pulp fiction, taken from one genre over, that steadily transitions into weird fiction before, on a dime, executing an endearingly gonzo set piece in the form of the Statue of Liberty being a Weeping Angel.

But this really is little more than a cold open meant to import some genre conventions. The Moffat/Hurran collaboration is ultimately based on a sort of meta-fictional suspense. In Moffat we have a writer perpetually interested in twists based on genre conventions - the person who honed narrative collapse into narrative substitution, and who has done more than any other writer of Doctor Who to recognize that one of the basic reasons that Doctor Who exists is to let us interrogate our stories. In Hurran, we have a director who is endlessly inventive in his ability to blur the line between representation and genre. And so when paired together, invariably, the result is a story in which the primary suspense is over what sort of story this is going to be. 

For The Angels Take Manhattan, however, the answer to that is already written in stone by the paratext: this is the sort of story where the Ponds tragically and heartbreakingly leave at the end. Its central genius, then, is to literalize this problem within the narrative by writing a story about the problem of narrative inevitability - one where the ending is, at times literally, written in stone. The central invention of The Angels Take Manhattan is to add yet another iteration of the act of looking to the logic of the Weeping Angels. If the Weeping Angels are, as Time of Angels made them, undead stories then the central horror of The Angels Take Manhattan is the danger of looking at a story. Ultimately, the reason Amy leaves is that the Doctor sees in the table of contents that Amy leaves. And he sees that because the paratext of Doctor Who has already announced her departure, previewed her replacement, and constructed a whacking big mystery about said replacement. 

The word we’ve not used yet, that we really should, is of course “spoilers.” Because part and parcel of this concern over the act of looking is River Song, a character who is defined by the achronological nature of her appearances. But by this point in the narrative the nature of River Song has steadily flipped. At this point we know who she is. It is no longer River who holds spoilers from the Doctor and from the audience, but rather the Doctor who holds the ultimate spoiler from her, namely her death. This has hung over the storyline from the beginning - the simultaneous betrayal and ultimate act of fealty that is the Doctor’s knowledge of River’s end. “He doesn’t like endings,” she says, not even beginning, even as she gets closer and closer to her ending, to realize the implications that statement has for their relationship. 

All of this is ultimately framed, however, around the Angels, who provide thematic unity to a story about the anxieties of looking and narrative structure. It is an odd sort of unity that extends as much out of Nick Hurran’s stylistic approach as it does out of any textual principles, but it works. Key to it is the return to the “proper” approach of Weeping Angels, which is killing people by sending them back in time. Another way to frame this, then, is that the Weeping Angels function by denying the possibility of an ending, especially when they’re given their feeding ground of Winter Quay. Instead of ending, one’s life simply gets caught in a nice, orderly causal loop that is a sort of sick apotheosis of Aristotelean narrative structure.

And fittingly, everyone within this story is caught in mirrors and reflections of past stories. Rory is dying again, River is confronting narratively pre-ordained events, Amy is lodged in yet another iteration of Amy’s Choice, the imagery of growing old and abandoned and of waiting is all over the story. This is fitting. It’s the end of the Pond era, and a celebration of past glories is earned. But what’s interesting is how much this isn’t a celebration of these past stories. Instead they seem to haunt the narrative, serving to map out the conceptual space of “Pond-era stories” in a way that only reiterates the inevitability of an ending.

That, at least, is the thematic content. Within that, however, is a story with its own focus - one that is structured around two marriages. This marks the first and indeed only time that a River Song story openly acknowledges the Doctor’s marriage to River and focuses on the marriage of River’s parents. At two key points in the narrative, River gives Amy advice born of life experience her mother doesn’t have, first explaining the Doctor’s aversion to endings, and then loudly and vehemently overruling the Doctor and telling Amy to let the Angel take her so she can be reunited with Rory. More broadly, The Angels Take Manhattan is about a fight between the Doctor and River - one focused in part on the key issue of their marriage, namely spoilers, but, like any marital argument, one that quickly devolves into a litany of minor aggressions. (Note, in particular, how River turns the Doctor’s harshest and cruelest line to her, “you embarrass me,” back on him, throwing it in his face with a spite that is both unappealing and crushingly human.) 

What we have, in other words, is one of the purest embodiments of Moffat’s most common theme: the great man struggling to be a good one. The Doctor is consciously marginalized throughout this story. Once he manages the feat of landing the TARDIS in 1938, his only function is to explain to the other characters how their lives are now circumscribed by endings. This is, in the end, why he doesn’t like them. Because his narrative is defined by its lack of ending, endings are things he must bear witness to. He is in a sense the only character who can dislike endings, since he’s the only character who witnesses them instead of experiencing them personally. But because of this, when faced with them, all he can do is rage futilely, whether it be his temper tantrum upon reading the last chapter header and the way in which he then takes it out on River, or his selfishly poor advice to Amy regarding her final rescue of Rory. 

This raises a more fundamental question, though, which is why we are ending the Ponds here in the first place. This is, after all, their second ending - they were already given a departure scene at the end of The God Complex, and have not been travelling continually on the TARDIS since. Why not simply wrap up their story at the end of Season Six, having brought them back as needed for The Wedding of River Song? Why is it necessary to end their relationship with the Doctor by force instead of by decision? Especially given the sense that this run of five episodes has given that the series is simply marking time to 2013, and that, production scheduling aside, it would have been more convenient for Doctor Who if 2012 simply hadn’t existed in the first place. 

The answer comes in the particular nature of the ending. Not, to be clear, Amy and Rory getting zapped back to the 1930s, but the carefully managed circularity of the final scene, calling back as it does to one of the basic mysteries of The Eleventh Hour, namely the apparent arrival of the Doctor during the Night of Amelia’s Joy. This is in its own way another instance of the past of the Pond Era being reiterated, as it turns out to, like the Doctor’s reappearing jacket, be an intentional error to be filled in later. The ending of The God Complex is ultimately unsatisfying in this way, because it violates the fundamental rule of endings, which is that they are a necessary consequence of beginnings. The Aristotelean web, where every event sets up future ones or pays off past ones, is thus both an object of qlippothic horror and a measure of salvation, allowing the story of the Ponds to end on an act of healing and reparation. Indeed, the lens of the arc ultimately works to make their entire story one of healing, so that even before the story’s first injury, those twelve cruel years of waiting, the Doctor has already defined the story as the one in which he fixes Amy Pond so that she can be the fairy tale girl she was always meant to be. The consequences, for good and for ill, are baked into the very premise. 

This has, in other words, always been a story about healing. About the healing of marital rifts, of friendship, and of companionship. About the healing of refusal to give in, of doing what needs to be done, of mothers and daughters and fathers, of female spaces, and everything else that the Pond era has ever presented. Everything within the story that is cruel and terrifying is, in other words, also a necessary part of the story’s redemption. Its moral is as simple as it is cruel. In the end, it is impossible to have any sort of healing unless one is willing to look, unflinchingly, at the wound. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Breakfast Blog Closing Imminently, Replaced By Craven Capitalist Consumption (A Prequel)

I'll admit it, I'm properly excited.

I liked where Doctor Who was going at the end of the Matt Smith era, even if I was at moments ambivalent about precisely where it was. And it feels like the change of Doctors is being used to take a breath, get in under the hood, and finish making the show they've been trying to make since 2011.

I think Capaldi's a fantastic actor. He's got a slight ostentatiousness to him that sets him apart from most of British television, where he spends most of his time lurking. He has the strange quality of underselling everything while still stealing scenes, which is of course the central joke of his ludicrously oversold Malcolm Tucker.

I still believe in Steven Moffat, in a very "I hitched my heart and soul on this series a long time ago, and I'm seeing it through to the very end" way. I remain calmly convinced that this will be seen as one of the great eras of Doctor Who, whatever may come in two or three years. I like the infusions of new talent, I mostly like the old talent they're retaining or bringing back, and I like the sense of confidence it feels like the show has.

And I like that I don't have to do it for TARDIS Eruditorum, to be perfectly honest. I like that I can see the end of that project, and that for a solid chunk of that end I get to be absolutely immersed in a hopefully fantastic chunk of my favorite show.

There was never any way I wasn't going to write about it at all, though, now was there? And the exact means took me a while. I thought about doing it on Tumblr or somewhere out of the way, quietly. And I thought about trying to work for a larger site. Slate was very nice last year. And ultimately, I decided to just run a Patreon and do them for, well, you guys. The sorts of people who come to this blog on a Saturday. Which I tend to assume is pretty coextensive with my fanbase, such as it is. "My precious quasi-fame," as Joss Whedon had it.

So here we are, a week from curtains up. $236.75 per episode, at the moment, according to the Patreon, which you are enthusiastically reminded you can still back if you would like to help support my decadent phase, as I eke dollar after dollar out of my tiny legion of fans to sustain my lifestyle of excess and grandeur. No, seriously, I need to buy heating oil this month. That shit's expensive.

So, the plan is that reviews will go up here as soon as I can get them done. Which is reliant on how I watch the episodes, which, see, here's the thing. I don't have cable. It's expensive, and I don't actually watch much television. So I just buy Doctor Who on an iTunes Season Pass, which delivers the episodes to my hard drive in a way that's trivial to output to the TV, and I'm happy as a clam. And I've done that this season, for $38 or something like that. They've got some nice interviews with Steven Moffat up as teaser content.

The thing is, those deliver at like 3am. Which is a lousy time, especially since Twitter and most of my social media lights up about the episode as soon as it starts, which is generally at like 2pm my time, thirteen hours before iTunes will be delivering my file. So I usually decide that, having paid for the episode, I have no ethical problems with using alternative delivery systems so that I can go back on the Internet, and then torrent the sucker when it goes up, usually around 3:00 or so for a forty-five minute episode starting at 2:00.

I'm still not sure how long these will take to write. I will probably watch the episode twice before starting, and then jump right in and write something fairly stream of consciousness, then check the word count and see where we are. I suspect the answer is that reviews will hit somewhere between UK and US transmission, bit we'll see. I'll make a dummy post here on Friday evening so people can start discussing the moment it airs, then drop the review in later. And then there'll be discussion, and I'm really excited about seeing what the people who hang about here have to say about the episodes. I really do love being an exception to the "don't read the comments" advice.

Notably, that method will not cause any Twitter alerts or anything. Indeed, as one cheeky little concession to the Patreon backers, the only way to get an e-mail alert or ping that the review is up is to back the Patreon. There you go. A $12 RSS pinger.

Oh, speaking of Twitter, I'll turn it off once UK transmission starts, and not turn it on again until I've watched the episode at least once. But one thing I think I'm going to be very interested in is the immediate, gut reactions to the episode. So, please do comment early, feel free to tweet at me to register your immediate thoughts on the episode. I'm @PhilSandifer over in that nest of the woods.

So yes. I'm excited. This should be fun.

How will you be watching, ladies and gentlemen? And are you excited?

Here's the Patreon link again.

Friday, August 15, 2014

All The Black is Ripe in Green (The Last War in Albion Part 57: The Burial, Rape)

This is the seventh of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. The second is available in the US here and the UK here. Finding volume 3-6 are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore resurrected the Jack Kirby creation Etrigan for his second arc of Swamp Thing, taking particular relish in writing the demon's rhyming dialogue, such as an extended monologue in sonnet form beginning "The toys about the nursery are set, for idiot chaos to arrange at whim"

"God will bury you. Nature will bury you. Time will bury your bones unseen. Total and absolute. Infinite amplitude. Till all the black is ripe in green." -Seeming, "The Burial"

“The toys about the nursery are set, for idiot chaos to arrange at whim. He drools and ruins lives, his chin is wet and old or young, it matters not to him. The gracious lady and her root-choked beast have come to save the innocents from harm, to spare them from the monkey’s dreadful feast. What noble souls they have! What charm! And see! The children’s uproar brings to life their guardians: that most dedicated breed! Yet she betrays her husband, he his wife, though both of them are kind to babes in need. Should innocence be mollycoddled thus? I fail to see the reason for the fuss,” he says, before continuing with a few more stanzas. It is perhaps no surprise that Moore would excel at writing Etrigan, given that his speech patterns allowed Moore to slip into the iambic rhythm he usually relies on to make a passage bigger and more portentous. 

Figure 421: Matt Cable, dying from a
drunken car crash, is possessed by a demonic
force in the form of a housefly. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John
Totleben, from Saga of the Swamp Thing #27,
1984. Click to enlarge.)
The second arc introduced other sizable elements of Moore’s run as well, however. On a story level, it continues a plot that Moore inherited from Pasko regarding Matt Cable and his descent into alcoholism. Moore has Cable get into a drunken car crash that kills him, allowing a mysterious spirit appearing in the form of a fly that offers to save him and that then crawls into his mouth, seemingly possessing him. On a practical level, it introduced a new editor for Moore in the form of Karen Berger, who would edit the remainder of his Swamp Thing run before going on to oversee the recruitment of other British writers and artists to create comics in a similar vein. Of the editors that Moore has worked with, there are perhaps none that he praises as unreservedly as he does Berger, who remained essentially the only figure at DC that Moore would actually speak to all the way until her departure from the company in 2013. It is tempting, especially given Moore’s tendency to complain about editors who he feels overstep their bounds, to suggest that Moore’s fondness for Berger was simply because she was inclined to get out of his way and let him tell the stories he wanted to tell, and it certainly is true that Berger gave Moore considerable creative freedom and generally backed and supported his instincts. But the interplay between them was always much more subtle than that - a fact that would be demonstrated clearly by Moore’s next story arc.

Having completed seven straight monthly issues of transformative and groundbreaking horror comics, Bissette and Totleben were by this point in need of a break before starting on this arc, however. The production schedule of American comics takes into account that few artists can actually maintain a monthly pace of twenty-three pages, especially not as more and more detailed and intricate art styles became increasingly popular with readers. Accordingly, the norm is to draft fill-in artists. Often these stories are what are known as inventory stories - ones solicited with the express purpose of being kept until the production schedule slips behind - other times they’re simply stories written as a break from the overall serialized narrative. In either case, they are typically self-contained, single-issue stories that do not rely on other plot elements - stories featuring a guest star or retellings of the main character’s origin are both common approaches. And so when the schedule grew tight after the Etrigan arc, Shawn MacManus was drafted in for “The Burial,” a story that in effect recapped Swamp Thing’s new origin, with Swamp Thing finding himself haunted by the ghost of the real Alec Holland, and thus being drawn to crawl the swamp for his bones and to give him a burial. Neil Gaiman suggests that the point of the story is as “a celebration of and memorial to the original Len Wein and Berni Wrightson” Swamp Thing, and this is certainly part of the story’s point, but it serves a second and pragmatic purpose as well. With the series’ new direction gaining considerable buzz, reintroducing the book’s new premise and re-explaining the relationship between Moore’s stories and the traditional Swamp Thing readers might be used to was a savvy move.

Figure 422: Shawn McManus's approach
to drawing Swamp Thing was noticeably
more cartoonish than Bissette and Totleben's.
(From Saga of the Swamp Thing #28, 1984)
MacManus gave “The Burial” a cleaner, crisper style that throw’s Bissette and Totleben’s tense and scratchy style into relief, such that the story feels as though it has taken a step backwards towards Wrightson’s art. Under MacManus’s pencil, Swamp Thing becomes a slightly cartoonish character, his mossy face given an added range of expression so that he can gape, horrified at the ghosts around him. The story is a slender thing, to be sure, but a needed breather after seven issues of white-knuckled and cutting edge horror. Moore, for his part, noted MacManus’s more cartoonish style, and developed an idea for future use. 

By this time, the success of Moore’s Swamp Thing work had caused some major shifts to the overall shape of his career. Moore started his career in 1979 eager to make £42.50 a week - the figure he’d been receiving when on welfare. Swamp Thing, however, paid $50 a page, which worked out to around £850 an issue, or nearly £200 a week, more than quadruple his initial benchmark for success, and solidly above the average income in the UK at the time. And it was not as though Swamp Thing was occupying his every waking hour. In fact, Moore could work out scripts fairly quickly. The script for Swamp Thing #29, for instance, was written in a two-day rush. Where in 1981 he was making between £60 and £90 for a day’s work, now he was making £425. This also meant that there was no reason to make Swamp Thing his only source of income.

Figure 423: Alan Moore and Ian Gibson's The
Battle of Halo Jones
 began in July 1984, the
same month that Saga of the Swamp Thing #29
came out.
Nevertheless, financial success once again allowed him to pick and choose his work, much as the beginning of Skizz had allowed him to finally drop the time-consuming and comparatively ill-paying The Stars My Degradation a few months earlier. As mentioned, Moore stopped doing short stories for IPC as soon as his Swamp Thing work commenced. A year or so after starting Swamp Thing, Moore also dropped Captain Britain, frustrated both with Marvel UK’s less than prompt payments and the sacking of Bernie Jaye. Two months later, in August of 1984, he dropped Marvelman after an explosive blow-up with editor Dez Skinn, although he would continue to write V for Vendetta until Warrior finally went under in February of 1985. For the time being he continued his 2000 AD work, starting a new project, The Ballad of Halo Jones, in July of 1984, and contributing a few short stories featuring the ABC Warriors and the Robusters for the 1985 annual. 

The same month that Halo Jones started, Moore published what would turn out to be one of the most historically significant issues of his Swamp Thing run. Following MacManus’s fill-in, Moore planned to have Bissette and Totleben draw “The Nukeface Papers,” an arc about nuclear pollution. Karen Berger, however, felt that this was not the right move for the book’s momentum, and had Moore shelve the story, leading Moore to quickly develop a story featuring the return of Swamp Thing’s one significant recurring villain, Anton Arcane. On one level, this move threatened to render the book formulaic. With the exception of “The Burial,” all of Moore’s Swamp Thing issues since “The Anatomy Lesson” have been three-part story lines following a relatively consistent pattern whereby the first issue features some malignant presence infecting the world, the second brings Swamp Thing to the point of confronting this presence, and the third finally resolves the plot. Repeating this basic story structure with a villain who had made a big return just ten issues earlier at the end of Martin Pasko’s run - feels ever so slightly stale.

Figure 424: This two-page spread, revealing that Abby has been the victim
of zombie incest rape from Anton Arcane, proved to be of remarkable
historical importance. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette
and John Totleben, from Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, 1984)
It is not that the Arcane arc is a bad story. Indeed, it’s quite effective. The first issue, Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, titled “Love and Death,” in which Abby steadily goes mad under Arcane’s psychic assault, has a grim and unsettlingly visceral sense of horror that outstrips any of Moore’s earlier work on the title. On a superficial level this visceral horror stems from the depiction of Abby curled up on the floor in shades of red and sickly yellow, with insects crawling all about her as Moore’s narration describes how “she couldn’t get rid of the smell. In the shower she used up all of the soap, the shampoo, the bubble-bath, the perfume… the smell was still there.” But the issue’s horror exists beneath the surface. Over the course of the issue Abby’s descent into madness is explained through a series of flashbacks in which she comes to realize that something is deeply wrong with her husband. Eventually she concludes, correctly, that he’s undead and possessed by something, revealed in a grotesque double page spread at the issue’s end to be Anton Arcane. This double page spread, in which her demonically possessed husband grabs her by the hair as she’s surrounded by a group of reanimated corpses, revealed now to be rotting zombies, and answers her question of “what do you want me to say” with the grotesque incest pun of “just say uncle,” proved, for several reasons, to be a historical turning point.

Figure 425: Abby's rape is metaphorically represented by
the invasion and infestation of her body with insects.
(From Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, 1984)
For one thing, it was one of Moore’s first engagements with a theme that would recur across his career - one whose frequency would ultimately provide one of the most common lines of criticism of his work: rape. Indeed, the incestuous rape of a character via the spiritual possession of her husband’s dead body is a strong contender for the single most horrific and disturbing rape in Moore’s oeuvre - a body of work in which it does, indeed, have an awful lot of competition. This would be true even if Bissette, Totleben, and colourist Tatjana Wood hadn’t outdone themselves in the gruesome and insect-ridden artwork, simply on the basis of the conceptual horror. With the artwork, it is a scene that is unprecedented in mainstream American comics - one that makes S. Clay Wilson’s cartoonish tableaus of demonic orgies look like lighthearted fun in comparison. 

This was, of course, the point. In a lengthy response made in 2014 to criticisms about the prevalence of rape in his comics, Moore notes that in 2013 “there were 60,000 rapes in the UK. I’m assuming that this is reported rapes, and that actual incidents of rape are possibly two or three times as high. There were a further 400,000 cases of sexual assault, and a frankly horrific 1.2 million cases of domestic abuse. Leaving aside the sexual assault and domestic abuse figures and just focussing on the rapes – which is of course rather my ‘thing’ – I would have to say that I do not recall the sixty thousand homicides that occurred in the U.K. last year, possibly because – well, they didn’t, did they?” He goes on to note that, given this, it is telling that in fiction the rates are reversed such that violent death is considerably more common than rape. “Why,” Moore asks, “should sexual violence be ring-fenced when forms of violence every bit as devastating are treated as entertainment? If I may venture an answer to my own question, might it be because the term ‘sexual violence’ contains the word ‘sexual’, a word relating to matters traditionally not discussed in polite society?” Moore suggests that the failure to engage with the prevalence of rape constitutes “the denial of a sexual holocaust, happening annually” before declaring that he “could not, in all conscience, produce work under those limitations without at least attempting to change or remove them. Presumably, my current critics would have done differently, and indeed, as I remember, most people in the field found it more convenient simply not to address issues of sex or sexuality – or those of race, politics, gender and any other matters of social substance, for that matter.”

Figure 426: Swamp Thing discovers that
Arcane has killed Abby. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben,
from Saga of the Swamp Thing #30, 1984)
The point, in other words, is that Moore opts to depict rape specifically because of its horror, and furthermore because he views that horror as the flipside of his interest in depicting “consensual and relatively joyous sexual relationships” as part of his conscious decision to “along with political and social issues… make sexual issues a part of my work.” The demonic rape of Abby is included specifically to be exactly as horrific as it appears. And yet given this, the criticism of Moore’s handling of rape are in many ways solid. While Moore is clearly committed to the depiction of rape as something awful, the truth is that he rather egregiously ducks the consequences of depicting it. Abby dies midway through the issue following the revelation of her rape, and when she is resurrected in the 1985 Swamp Thing Annual it is with no memory of what happened. For all that “Love and Death” focuses on her trauma, the subsequent issues can fairly be criticized for being a fairly banal saga of men taking vengeance on other men for terrible things that have been done to women. In this regard rape is troublingly severed from the corresponding issue of survivorship. It becomes an object of spectacle as opposed to a real experience to be engaged with, so that its horror is not the lived experience of rape but rather the conceptual horror of the basic phenomenon of rape. Once the immediate and traumatic agony of her rape is over, Abby becomes little more than a prop for another plot. 

In many ways this distinction underlies the entire debate over Moore’s use of rape and, more broadly, its consequences for the subsequent history of American comics. Moore, after all, had already criticized the depiction of sexual violence in comics back in his “Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies” essay in The Daredevils, where he blasted the tendency for comics to “start dishing up evil, sordid little adult fantasies,” particularly highlighting the use of bondage. [continued]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Comics Reviews (August 14th, 2014)

All-New X-Men #30

Faced with the need to fill an issue before "Last Will and Testament of Charles Xavier" wraps up and screws with the status quo, Bendis delivers what one might call a classic issue of X-Men, which is to say, one with no plot and all character beats. This is the strange parody of the X-Men as a franchise: it is in practice a relationship book/soap opera that occasionally degenerates into usually borderline incomprehensible sci-fi. So this, at least, is playing to its strengths. It's the first issue where I've liked X-23, and the Jean/Emma stuff is quite solid too. Still not entirely enamored with Bendis's take on Emma, but look, this is what X-Men comics exist for, so no reason to complain. A

Amazing Spider-Man #5

Dan Slott continues to be very good at writing Spider-Man. Much like All-New X-Men, this is a calm and efficient execution of what you'd expect a Spider-Man book to be, and with a solid cliffhanger. All the same, I'm feeling a bit lost in it - my decision to skip Superior Spider-Man because I was unimpressed with the premise feels like it's not paying off, and like the renumbering to #1 is not entirely successful. It's not that I don't follow the plot, but I'm not engaging very thoroughly with much of the secondary cast. Perhaps I'm just not big on Spider-Man right now. Don't know. But this may be one I drop soon to save some money. B+ on the merits, but a personal C.

Captain Marvel #6

I still suspect this first arc could have lost an issue, as it really bogged down for me in the middle, but the arc really has come together at the tail end, and this is very satisfying. I suspect it would work well even if you've not read the previous issues. There's a lot of buzz on this book, and a really passionate fanbase, and this is an excellent place to try it and see if it's to your taste. Currently it's comic book sci-fi with a well-conceived lead in the "realistic psychological take on a good soldier" style that, for instance, Greg Rucka does so well with. Worth checking out. A

God is Dead: The Book of Acts Omega

Bought for the Kieron Gillen story, which is short, ludicrous, and an attempt by Gillen to get people to stop pretending Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis have a monopoly on comedic gratuitousness. It's a nice sketch for a possible series, and I'd certainly like to see more if Gillen has ideas in this universe, but twelve pages is only long enough to get some gruesome jokes in, and not long enough to really establish the merits of the ideas. I can't say with a straight face that it's worth $5.99 for this story alone, and the other two stories are not that good. The main God is Dead arc fails utterly to convince me to try the book again, and Justin Jordan's "The Great God Pan" is frankly horrible. B+ for the Gillen story, D for the overall package.

Original Sin #7

You know, I actually liked the first few issues of this. I really did. But right around when aged Nick Fury showed up, it just went completely off the rails. "Nick Fury: Space Sniper Dude" is just not as radical a take as the series thought it was, and it's left the comic limping towards a conclusion. This just doesn't work as a big crossover. There's a series with these ideas that could have been fantastic, but it's not a big dumb summer crossover. D-

Sex Criminals #7

This book has rightly been getting praise for its blend of comedy with a real and honest look at the neuroses and pains of life, all with a solid amount of good jokes about sex. It is the only book on sale this week that has a dildo sword, a discussion of bad side effects of birth control, and a bracing look at self destructive tendencies and what they feel like. It's very, very good, and worth reading. I'm not sure when there's a good jumping on point to be had, but since it's only seven issues in, frankly, start at the beginning and catch up. This is very, very good stuff. A+ (Pick of the Week)

Edit: To clarify, Sex Criminals #7 is not the only book this week to feature a dildo sword period. Kieron Gillen's "Alastor: Hell's Executioner" story from God is Dead: The Book of Acts Omega also includes dildo weapons, as well as a dildo helmet and an extensive array of penis limbs. It does not, however, combine these phalluses with a discussion of the bad sides of birth control or a bracing look at self destructive tendencies and what they feel like.

United States of Murder Inc. #4

This book has entered that somewhat fallow period between the explosion of its initial premise and the resolution of the first arc, and, like many a Bendis book, is taking its sweet time putting all its cards on the table. It's enjoyable, but there's a palpable sense of waiting for things to happen and for the book to expose a bit more of its premise, which is, to be fair, the price you pay with a Bendis book. Still interesting, but I'm not sure there's much to say until we get past the "letting the fuse run down" part of the exercise. B

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It Isn't Really a Disease at All (Closing Time)

My god, there really is an action figure set based on "Children
of the Revolution."
It’s September 24th, 2011. One Direction are at number one with “What Makes You Beautiful,” while Pixie Lott, Example, Calvin Harris, and Maroon 5 also chart, the latter continuing to just hover at #2 with “Moves Like Jagger.” In news, the US policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is finally repealed in favor of letting gay and lesbian service members serve openly, the NBA lockout results in cancelling a bunch of preseason games, and Occupy Wall Street starts getting some press coverage.

While on television, it’s the sequel to The Lodger, namely Closing Time. “You know that absolutely brilliant thing you did? Do it again” is, as assignments to creative people go, something of the biggest nightmare imaginable. Almost certainly, after all, you used the best ideas you had for the concept on the first go-around. Especially in the realm of something comedic, where you’ve almost certainly done a winnowing process the first time around, since the way being funny tends to work is that you try about five to fifty times as many ideas as you actually need so that you can cut the 80-98% that aren’t actually good enough. So the comedy sequel is an absolutely brutal thing.

And that applies very well here. So much of why The Lodger works is that it gets in, it executes a couple of great gags about the idea of the Doctor trying to live with a perfectly ordinary person, it throws in a romantic comedy plot, and then it finishes up and makes way for the Pandorica. It doesn’t need five minutes more, little yet forty-five. And in a real sense, a sequel is a terrible idea, because it cannot possibly live up to the original. All it can be is “the next best forty-five minutes of Craig/Doctor jokes.” 

And so from the start, Gareth Roberts makes an extremely sensible decision and makes this a different premise. This isn’t “the Doctor moves in with Craig again.” Indeed, in many ways Craig is a completely different character such that, other than a single scene in which he pouts at the Doctor, he’s a basically functional companion who broadly speaking understands how Doctor Who stories work. Given that the entire premise of The Lodger was that the Doctor was living in the spare room of a romantic comedy and mucking everything up, the change to a setup in which the primary guest star is now good at being in a Doctor Who story is such that it barely seems to count as a sequel.

So instead, the story focuses on the fact that Craig’s a father now. What’s interesting here is that this really doesn’t follow from The Lodger in any particularly logical sense. Fatherhood is not a logical follow-up to any of the issues there except inasmuch as sometimes when people fall in love there are babies. Craig isn’t out of character as such, but precisely none of the concerns that defined him in The Lodger are still in play here. Ultimately, the connection between Closing Time and The Lodger is that they both feature everyman characters played by James Corden, which creates a sort of de facto continuity between the two characters.

So what we have in Closing Time is an exploration of fatherhood, or, perhaps more broadly, parenthood, although there is, within it, a particularly male anxiety about the intrinsically closer bond between child and mother than between child and father. So yes, actually, let’s say clearly that it’s about fatherhood, in a way that plays off of and expands the exploration of masculinity that the series has been engaging in since Moffat took over, and particularly with Rory.

Ah, right. Rory. I’ve been kind of avoiding Rory, for pretty much the exact same reason that I avoided talking about death much in Miracle Day, but since we’re now on an episode in which he has exactly zero lines, this is obviously the time to talk about him. Because I think he is in many ways the most important character in the Moffat era. We’ve already seen, at somewhat considerable length, the way in which Moffat is very focused on changing and improving the stories we tell about women. He is an ideologically feminist writer, a point that can trivially be demonstrated by trawling interview quotes. His feminism may be imperfect (in fact it is imperfect, in ways that are not entirely different from the ways that William Moulton Marston’s feminism is imperfect, but as anyone who has read the book where I talk about that will know, feminism is an ongoing process of making new mistakes, and Moffat accomplishes that with aplomb), but anyone who attempts to argue that Moffat is not consciously attempting to write feminist television is simply and factually incorrect. 

Obviously the main thrust of this, and it’s something we saw very clearly in the subversion of the rape/revenge plot in A Good Man Goes to War and the subsequent story of female spaces and healing that is Let’s Kill Hitler, is telling different stories about women and giving girls a different set of narratives to absorb about their place in the world, specifically ones that highlight the fact that they are entitled to have stories of their own. A secondary thrust of this is the treatment of the Doctor, which fits into a career-long pattern on Moffat’s part of interrogating the ethos of clever men/authorial self-inserts (which, as Joking Apart and Coupling both demonstrate are, for Moffat, basically the same thing), although ultimately, as with any of Moffat’s interrogations of that, after diagnosing a number of ways in which clever men are problematic, this quickly turns into an unabashed “but aren’t they wonderful” of the sort that, while probably true, is nevertheless comically self serving. And for the most part, this is how Moffat’s Doctor Who (and almost everything else he writes) works - it repeatedly and aggressively interrogates and renegotiates the relationship between a particular type of male hero and the female characters who exist in the space around that hero.

All of which leaves Rory, who is neither female nor a brilliantly clever man who delivers witty dialogue. Indeed, Rory is astonishingly normal and mundane. But this means that he’s also the one who gets what is possibly the most important ethical point of the entire Moffat era: “not all victories are about saving the universe.” Which is to say that in a series that’s about negotiating the space between brilliant and fundamentally mad heroes and women, Rory ends up being a strange but necessary side point, which is an idealized depiction of masculinity. In this regard there’s a lot of parallels to draw between Rory and John Watson, but let’s save those for Sherlock and for now just try to make a vague and broad sketch of what Moffat’s idealized masculinity consists of.

The best definition probably involves popping back to Press Gang and grabbing one of Moffat’s best episode titles, “At Last a Dragon.” Which is to say, Moffat’s idealized masculinity is still based on a fundamental sort of heroism, but it is a heroism of necessity. One of the most fascinating things about Rory as a character is that he does not particularly want to be on the TARDIS. He is only there because his wife does. But equally, given that his wife wants to be on the TARDIS, he does as well, not so much because of what the TARDIS offers, nor out of jealousy or fear that he’ll lose Amy, but because being on the TARDIS is self-evidently dangerous as all hell and if his wife is going to be there, he will be too in order to take care of her. Perhaps the most Rory line of all comes in The Impossible Astronaut, where, looking at the Doctor’s body and the need to burn it, he calmly declares that if they’re going to do this, they should do it properly. 

There’s a huge thread within Moffat’s later work along these lines - you can also see it whenever he starts interrogating the concept of what a soldier is. Moffat is fascinated by the heroism of necessity - by the idea of people who can be trusted to do what is necessary, even in enormously trying circumstances, and particularly by those who, because of that, put themselves in situations where they’ll be called upon to do just that. But equally important in this is a certain measure of restraint. What is important about Rory is not merely what he can do, but the fact that he does not seek to be a hero. He doesn’t want to do dramatic things, but he also refuses to avoid situations where he’ll have to. He, not just as an authorial conception, but in his own personal mythology, is a supporting character in someone else’s story, but at times a vital one.

Which finally brings us back to Closing Time and its interest in a particular anxiety of fatherhood - one that’s been analyzed ad nauseum, but that comes down to the basic fact that mothers have a variety of biological functions for embryos and infants that fathers simply don’t, and that this results in a fundamental asymmetry in child-rearing. And this is the basic problem of Closing Time - Craig having to find out and define for himself what “being a dad” means. The Doctor’s role in this is oddly wonderful - he perfectly understands Stormageddon/Alfie, to the point of “speaking baby.” Equally, however, he’s manifestly not a father figure, but instead a strange alien hunting Cybermen. His role within the narrative is to help teach Craig what it means to be a dad. And what it means to be a dad, quite compatibly with Moffat’s larger ethos of masculinity, it that when your son is crying because of the Cybermen, you get your shit together and blow them up. And, of course, within all of this is an impeccable Gareth Roberts script long on humor and warmth and humanity.

But let’s pause to look at the Cybermen a bit. There’s a conscious difference in texture and feel for the Cybermen scenes and the rest of the story, with the Cybermen being shot in Season Six’s trademark low/cold lighting, far from the warmth and naturalism of the everyday world sequences. And so for all that the Cybermen really are just standing in as the generic Doctor Who monsters here, they retain a certain whiff of their old qlippothic horror. They are the horrible nightmare lurking below the surface of the world - a terrifying otherworld that wants to consume our world and drain every ounce of humanity and value from it until it is just an empty, deleted husk. This isn’t particularly played up, but it’s a clear part of the story, and, more importantly, a major thematic component of the story, which is after all equally largely about the Doctor preparing himself to confront his own death.

Which brings us to the end of the story, in which the Silence finally come for River Song and set up the inevitable death of the Doctor that has been teased since the start of the season. In many ways, the Cybermen are just thematic placeholders for the Silence, who are arguably the ultimate in qlippothic monsters. Even their name feels qlippothic, focusing on absence. They are unstory. Everything that is substantial about them is gone, to the point where they cannot even be remembered. They are nothing but a rotting absence and abscess, a textual wound that manifests in real and literal wounds to people, most notably Amy and River, who they torture and abuse just to further their monstrous decay of the narrative. The Doctor’s death is, of course, their visible masterstroke - the point where they ensure a true and proper narrative collapse so that there can be no more stories at all. And Closing Time walks an odd line between this, paralleling the acceptance of death’s inevitability with an acknowledgment of the horror of what the Silence killing the Doctor actually means, a horror that’s shown in the actually quite upsetting and awful scene where it appears that Craig has succumbed to cyberconversion. 

But in many ways it is the final scene that speaks loudest here. That’s not a knock on the episode, which is quite wonderful, and has the “Stormageddon” gag, which is demonstrably one of the most beloved funny bits in all of Doctor Who. Nevertheless, it’s an episode that exists to finally bring about the awful moment where the abuse suffered by River/Melody comes to a head. This was, after all, always partially overlooked. Let’s Kill Hitler demonstrates the healing of River in one sense, but that’s in the sense of turning her from a villain into a hero. Here, even if only for a scene, we go back to the elided truth: that Kovarian and the Silence kidnapped a child and tortured her, causing irreparable psychological damage. And in the final images, as River is captured and drugged, left powerless and fading to unconsciousness as she looks in terror both at her captors and at the knowledge of what awful fate is about to take place for both her and the one she loves, and finally abandoned, thrown in the water to rot like she’s a victim in some awful cop show, are genuinely among the most awful and upsetting that Doctor Who has ever contemplated. This on top of the horror of stealing her from her mother, of the bodily violation that was her birth, and of every other awful thing to happen in this plot.

In a story framed by two qlippothic horrors, then, it is River who serves to show us the awful face of a world in which all positive aspects of the narrative are removed, and where all is left is degradation and misery. Yes, this is a problem the arc has already set up with A Good Man Goes to War, but that, at least, posed a question of how to rescue Amy. Here the misery is so much bleaker, tied as it is in the declared-to-be-inevitable death of the Doctor. A Good Man Goes to War opened a door, looked at the consequences, and ultimately rejected that sort of narrative as fundamentally incompatible with Doctor Who. But here that sort of narrative actually happens. It’s a narrative collapse far bleaker and more fundamentally disturbing than any the series has contemplated before - one in which, for however fleeting a moment, Doctor Who gives up all hope and becomes a qlippoth of itself. A show where these sorts of things happen to people - that focuses on the degradation and abuse and torture of women in the way that the final shot of River in the astronaut suit, submerged in Lake Silencio does - is not a show that should exist in the first place. This is the death that the Doctor has chosen to go willingly to: a death not only of himself, but of the entire system of values and ethics that his show embodies. One in which Doctor Who is finally, decisively deconstructed and shown to be a story about the horrors of the world. And as the episode closes, there is ultimately only one question: what possible rescue can there be from this fate?